Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dying and Rising

Have you ever stood at a crossroads?

Today’s gospel reading describes just such a moment for Jesus, and for us.

It comes at a crucial point in Jesus’ life according to John’s gospel, and marks a turning point in his ministry….the end of the public teaching and healing time, and the beginning of the inexorable movement forward into darkness, and death on a cross.….no longer is he a local wandering preacher sent only to the house of Israel to be their awaited messiah.

That it’s a crucial crossroads text is heightened by the fact that it begins with some foreigners, non Jews, wanting to meet Jesus, whose impact is evidently spreading, and ends with drawing “all people”—a literary bracketing that often is used to highlight what comes between.

It’s a crossroads for Jesus—he doesn’t say, Wonderful, bring ‘em in.That would be the likeliest response from earlier in his life – remember, let the children come?

No, he sees the bigger meaning in this inquiry…this thing he and God have got going is getting bigger than maybe even he ever thought, and he realizes, Now is the big moment. Now is the time for decision. Now the hour has come. Now is the crossroads.

And he shares a gardening image with his listeners…a seed can either be just a seed, or it can be a fruitful plant or tree. It’s as if he invites us into his soul’s wondering. If he wants to be faithful to his covenant, written on his heart with God, and if he wants to bring about all God wants for the world, he has to move forward. And moving forward through the crossroads means death. He can’t stay the same; he’s going to die.

It’s a crossroads for us who say we’re Christians too—will I be a Jesus follower, wherever it takes me? It probably won’t be crucifixion, but it will mean a complete identification with him 24-7. Will I look inside and see what needs to die in my life to move across the crossroads?

What tiny thing, given up, would bring life instead?

What resentment, let go, would bring life to your shriveled soul?

What forgiveness offered would free a relationship?

Or will I remain an observer, an outsider, one who just wants to meet Jesus informally but not transformationally.

There’s an old wisdom story from another tradition about a distressed person who comes to a holy teacher for help.

Do you really want to be cured?

Of course, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Nobody would come if they didn’t want that.

Yes, they would, and do, said the holy one, all the time.

Then why do they come?

Not for a cure; that’s painful. They come for relief.

Crossroads. This text makes it clear that decisions to move forward with and for God, involve real inner struggle. “This troubles my soul” says Jesus. You can hear the anguish.

Jesus invites us deeper into that struggle: should I ask to be relieved of this? Or should I go on, knowing it points beyond me to God? Isn’t there another way? his anguished heart asks.

The writer reminds us that such prayers, such inner encounters with the Holy One are dialogue; God hears and responds. Not everyone’s ears are tuned in, some are still at the relief stage, so they don’t get it, but that doesn’t stop Jesus.

Now, he says again. Now is the moment of judgment, diagnosis John called it last week. The cross-roads calls for a decision.

For him and for us.

He says, WHEN I am lifted up, not IF—his decision is made. He steps through the crossroads towards death.

But there’s a play on words here. Raised up literally on the cross also means, especially in the gospel of John, raised up in life…..resurrection. Life, not death, wins.

His dying made the powers that be think they’d won, and the powers of the world still think that violence is the right way to win. Listen to this from the weekend Wall Street Journal I read yesterday—in an article about an alternative way to deal with combat veterans who’ve been convicted of crimes :A generation of veterans is stumbling out of the chaos of war into the chaos of the civilian world. They’re moving from a highly disciplined environment where violence is normal to an unstructured environment where violence is prohibited. Many find it is the peace they can’t handle.

What are we thinking? what are we doing?

But really, the violence, crucifixion or warfare, then or now, all it does is expose human sickness. Crossroads. Judgment. Diagnosis.

The Love it took Jesus to step through the cross-roads is attractive enough to draw people, all people, all manner of people, people in all kinds of states.

Our affirmation about nothing separating us from this Love led me this week to write in my journal:

I want that kind of love. I want to show and live that kind of love. But first I must be open enough to believe and receive that kind of Love.

And Love didn’t stop there…love doesn’t die, no matter the worst we can do to it. Love can’t be stopped by raising up a crude ugly cross; love keeps going by raising up life.

Now. Now we stand at a crossroads. Judgment. Diagnosis. Now we decide, again, if we will go the Jesus way, follow him through the cross roads, believe INTO him as John said last week by living life his way, sharing the interior life with God and one another, with all its struggles, dying to that which does violence, that which hurts rather than heals, rising to a new transformative life.

God spoke a new covenant with us, for our whole beings.

Humanity, we, said no thanks; that’s too hard.

God spoke another new word in Jesus.

Humanity, we, said yes please to his healing and relief, but no to his life power.

God spoke again with resurrection.

Now. At the crossroads. What will be our reply?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Light & Judgment

March 18, 2012
John W. McNeill
There is a temptation to move right to John 3:16.

3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Believe in Jesus so that you won’t die, but instead go to heaven.”

God loved the world so much, God gave his only Son that God gave us this way out of dying so that we could go to heaven.

But what if we have been reading this in a way that keeps us in the dark?

What if “so” means not “how much,” but “in what way?”  So a better translation might be: This is how God loved the world: God gave his only Son.

And further, what if “believe in” does not mean accepting some particular facts as true or giving intellectual assent, but instead means giving ones trust and submission. What if it really means “following?” Believing into, handing ones whole self over to the Son? I’ve read this week that the grammar of the sentence in Greek indicates this is more likely the appropriate translation.

But before rushing to John 3:16, perhaps we should pause a moment and give the verses that surround it some attention.

The first verse of today’s reading is peculiar:
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

But let’s hear what this is about. This refers to an incident as Moses was leading the Israelites on their journey from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of freedom. Once again the people were grumbling about being in the desert with no food and no water. God heard them grumbling and sent poisonous snakes among them to bite them. Many died from these snake bites. Finally some of the people went to Moses to tell him that God was punishing them with poisonous snakes and that they were sorry. Moses prayed for the people and God told him to make a serpent out of bronze and put it on a rod and hold it up. Whoever had been bitten by a poisonous snake could look on the bronze snake and would be healed.

Now this story may sound in many ways silly to our ears, but the point Jesus makes in telling this story is that we must pay attention, look at the things that are killing us. And, more than that, when he is lifted up – that is crucified – that we are to look at that. Look carefully at that crucifixion and all that has gone into it if we are to be saved.

If we give ourselves over to him, we will be saved. Again, the way to read this is not about acknowledging some particular facts, but rather about  how we follow Jesus. Later on in John’s gospel this made abundantly clear when Jesus says: I am the way, the truth, and the life. To find life, we must live in Jesus’ way.
So how do we know whether we are living in Jesus’ way? How do we determine this?

Well, let’s look at the verses that come after John 3:16. It actually talks about the judgment.
3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
3:20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

The judgment here is actually a little surprising, it’s not a judgment in the sense that God has looked at someone and said, “You’re bad.” The judgment is that the folks who are in trouble are hiding in the darkness. They will not come into God’s light. They do not come into God’s light because they do not want to be exposed. They hold themselves back from being saved.

On the other hand,
3:21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

Those who are living in God, doing deeds done in God, doing what is true, want to be in the light, want to be revealed in God’s presence, do not hang back from living in Jesus’ way.

And this gives us an understanding of verses 17 & 18, which we skipped over:
3:17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

3:18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Jesus has not come to condemn, but to save.  Those who are following him, believing into him, allying with him, are not condemned. On the other hand, those who are not following him are condemned because they are avoiding the light that will illuminate their lives and save them. Hence they remain in the darkness. There is no salvation in darkness.

Contrasts that are developed in this passage:
Believing into (Following)
Not believing into (Not following)
Do what is true
Do evil
Have eternal life

Some sections of John’s gospel have this format of churning around in the relationships among several concepts. These passages immerse us in contrasts and connections to draw us into  deeper understanding of Jesus’ meaning.

But these contrasts are governed by the first verse of our passage this morning:
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

As the passage develops we come to understand that encountering this passage puts us in the position of judgment. We are brought to a reality check about who we are. We must ask ourselves:
Are we willing to hold our lives up to the light?

Paradoxically, only by willing to be judged will we escape judgment.

Perhaps we can better understand this if we see how the same principle is true in another sort of case.
Let’s think about dentists. Dentists use a lot of light. 

So imagine this situation:
You take good care of your teeth. You floss twice a day. You brush with the right kind of toothbrush and toothpaste. Maybe you also use an anti-plaque rinse. You minimize sweets. You visit your dentist every six months. It’s almost a joy. The cleaning is barely uncomfortable because you have so little tarter. There are never any cavities. No extra costs. No problem. Your life and habits are arranged so that you do not hesitate to go to the dentist because you have no reason to expect any real problems. That dentist’s light will simply reveal a gorgeous smile. All your teeth will live.

On the other hand…
I can imagine a situation in which one does not floss even once a day, or even once a week. I can imagine a situation in which one never flosses. I can imagine someone brushing their teeth only in the morning and never before bed when it is most important to prevent tooth decay. I can imagine someone using a toothpaste not recommended by American Dental Association. For such a person going to the dentist might well fill them with dread. Especially if they have some discomfort in a tooth. The cleaning will take a long time, it will be uncomfortable. I may need a filling. It might hurt. It may cost a lot of money. Maybe I won’t go to the dentist. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it will get better on its own. I’ll start brushing and flossing more regularly. Starting tomorrow. Or next week. My teeth will die.

I want to show you a clip from the film Bruce Almighty. Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carey, has had some terrible things happen in his life. One of the worst is that he’s lost his job. He rails at God. He accuses God of being like a big mean kid, interested in watching him squirm. He begins to get mysterious text messages telling him to come for a job interview. That’s where this scene begins. It turns out to be much more of an interview than he’d bargained for. He’s invited to come into the light.

Clip from Bruce Almighty.

Bruce has some real problems. If he is going to get better he will have to begin to pay attention to how he is living and what his expectations are. He will have to be open to testing whether his attitudes and his actions are leading to life.

I’ve talked before about judgment being a kind of diagnosis. It is not for our condemnation, it is a step toward healing, a step toward knowing how we must change. Judgment is God taking us seriously and us taking God seriously. Engaging God intentionally and deeply.

Jesus’ words here are not a threat. They are statements of how the universe is. If we avoid judgment, if we avoid diagnosis. That in itself leads to our failure to get better. If we step into the light of judgment we are taking the first step toward wholeness and peace. The first step toward salvation. So in that sense, the judgment is not judgment at all.

In this season of Lent we look ahead to Good Friday, when we remember the Son of man lifted up - lifted up on the cross that shines a light on our rebellion against God’s goodness and invites us to be healed.

 The cross shines a light on the injustice of the powerful against the weak and invites us to follow Jesus’ way of justice.

The cross shines a light on the cruelty of which we are capable and invites us to follow Jesus’ way of compassion.

The cross shines a light on the love of God for the world and invites us to follow into that very same way of love.

The cross shines a light on the self-giving love of God. It shines a light on the way God loves: not as the overwhelming power that will impose what is right. But as the love that calls us into self-giving vulnerability that is open to that light and embraces the possibilities God is offering us for eternal life in Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2012

upside down or right side up?

This is a story about Jesus with what I call the ‘cringe factor’. It makes me a bit queasy too. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, lover of the poor, healer of the sick, comforter of the afflicted, loses it. A temple temper tantrum.

And this makes me cringe a bit because I wonder if we’ve domesticated Jesus. We’ve forgotten that he was a man with a mission he was passionate about. And whatever else we might be in the church, we’re not really big into passion for God’s mission. We’re into being gentle Christians, meek and mild, wave riding not wave making.

If we were, the building would be overflowing and we’d be meeting in malls and coffee shops and halls of justice all over the place…..or something.

Funny thing about passion though. There’s plenty around.

(yoga mat)

My friend Jenny does yoga. She goes several times a week. She tells me there are people there who go every day, and pay big bucks for the privilege of sweating in impossible positions.

All because, she says, it’s become the new church…it centers them, makes them feel good and gives them inspirational messages, and counts as ‘spiritual but not religious’ lifestyle.

This is a culture that seeks personal escape from the toxicity of life, and a soothing of stress. Much as some of us seek from church.

To spend the kind of time and money one does on yoga, from which one gets good benefits, speaks of passion.

To spend the kind of time and money we do on gym memberships, kids’ sports teams, extracurricular activities for children, which may have much more destructive results, speaks of passion.

But faith? Spiritual growth? Church? The Jesus way? Not so much.

I read a letter to the editor recently that said this:

I don’t think most people realize how much their thinking has been influenced by advertising and other media. We have become obsessed (read passionate) with having the latest clothes, toys, tech stuff, etc.

Our values…are upside down. The need to have so much stuff has made us financially insecure at best. Caring for others has been reduced to giving money to charity. Caring for our kids is about giving them stuff and filling their time. (Feb. Sojourners)

So I cringe when I realize how far I – and the institutional church – have come from the passionate enthusiasm of Jesus for the reign of God.

That’s why the Temple temper story makes me cringe.

The temple was the religious institution of its day. And it had lost its central focus. People’s enthusiasm for religion was really for the rituals, the trappings, and the religion – not for the God at its centre.

This is why yoga and the ‘spiritual but not religious’ culture is so alive today—for we—the church-- have become religion, not faith. We’ve become an end in ourselves, the church, and not the means to the end, which is ‘thy kingdom come on earth’

One commentator on this text said that the temple institution had “settled into comfortable behaviours that enabled them to meet institutional goals” (Feasting on the Word) Cringe.

You see the Temple originally was supposed to be about God’s Presence—it was where God lived. It was especially holy as the place you went to be near the Divine Presence, and to get right in your relationship with God. But the trappings –all legitimate and lawful—had become the point instead of the Presence. Instead of becoming an instrument of the good, the institution, then and now, had become the good itself.

as today’s reading from St. Paul comments(I Cor.1:21 we didn’t read), God saw that didn’t work, and had to try something foolish instead—like unleashing the Divine Presence into the world in a human being, Jesus.

And that turns things upside down, like those temple tables, hoping to get the world right side up. Jesus wreaks holy havoc in order to reclaim sacred space.

Where is our sacred space? For sure it can be right here. But if God is unleashed into the world in Jesus, who’s not here, where is the Divine Presence? In “the Body of Christ”. The church. You and me. Us.

WE are the sanctuary of the holy.

As we move into months of discernment and self-examination as a congregation, we need to regain some passion, turn over some tables, get out of our settled comfortable behaviours, and become

God’s sanctuary, not as a building or institution, but as the Divine Presence, unleashed.

It sounds a bit unsettling I know. And I know some of you are cringing because whenever there’s change I hear something like:

My whole life is unsettled and topsy turvy I need the church to be safe and stable…


But the church is not yoga. It is not just a place to get your needs met.

The church is the body of Christ, a passionate transformative presence….a place to be empowered to meet the needs of an upside down world, and a movement, not an institution….a movement that, like yoga, will make us sweaty and put us in impossible positions and get us passionate and enthusiastic 7 days a week.

if the divine presence is within us, that’s a safe and secure foundation no matter how upside down life gets.

If WE are the sanctuary of the divine presence, that’s the right side up.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Dear Jesus... Dear Peter...

"Dear Jesus... Dear Peter..."
Mark 8:27-38
March 4, 2012

Dear Jesus...
I am writing this letter to inform you that I hereby resign as your disciple. This afternoon’s outburst was too much. And to call me Satan in front of all the others! I’ve had it.

I guess you don’t understand that I care about what happens to you. You're a dreamer. Why you're the type who would go running right to Jerusalem - run right to the gallows. Then where will the Kingdom be? Can't you see you need people like me to look out for you? To protect the interests of our movement?

Just like your telling the rest of us to keep our mouths shut  about the healings and exorcisms you do. People appreciate your humility. I find it one of your more attractive qualities.  Luckily, James and John and I understand it's just your modesty and we spread the word anyway. And keeping us quiet about these astounding things you do is irrelevant anyway. The folks you help are so ecstatic, they blab it all over the place. After all, a blind man goes home and he can see; he's got to give some explanation.

Perhaps what hurt me most this afternoon was that I got no real recognition for having been right about who you are. You are the Christ, the Messiah, aren't you? I'm not at all sure why the idea came to me. Certainly the crazy way you act sometimes  should convince me you're not. But when you confronted us with the question, "Who do you say that I am?" it hit me all of a sudden, with power: "You are the Christ." Why it hadn't struck any of us before is obvious.  You don't act like a Messiah is supposed to act.

You squabble with respectable people and then turn around and make friends with poor folks, and with sinners: con men, prostitutes, unwed mothers, adulterers, scoundrels.

But it did come clear to me today. You are the Messiah.  I know it. It came to me 'out of the blue,' as it were. I still don't understand how it can be. It doesn't make a bit of sense to me, but it's true. I can feel it in my bones.

And then, on the one hand you tell me that I am the rock on which you will build your church, and that you give me the keys to your kingdom, but then you go and say don’t tell anyone you are the Christ. You are too confusing to be a good leader.

And then all this talk about suffering and dying. That's no way for the Christ to talk!  Where's your faith? You tell us to trust God and then you come back at us with all this doom and gloom.

Jesus, you're never going to get anywhere inviting people to carry crosses. You are a visionary, an idealist, and that's great. But you've got to be practical, too. If you're the Messiah, all the more reason to stay away from Jerusalem, at least for the time being. Get some more followers first, then you can deal from a position of strength. 

And you tell me I'm not on the side of God? You're the one who'll go and get the Messiah killed. Well, I don't want any part of it.  I'm through. And you'll lose the rest of the disciples if you keep talking this crucifixion rubbish You'd better remember who your friends are. I'll be gone by the time you read this.

Peter read through the letter, seeing if he might add anything. He folded it up and left it where he knew Jesus would find it.

Sure enough, as Jesus woke early the next morning for prayer, he found Peter's letter and he began to read. He smiled to himself and then began to write.

Dear Peter,
You write to me saying I don't understand how much you care about what happens to me. But Peter, I do understand that. I see into your heart more clearly than you see into mine. I too, care what happens to me...  too much I care.

Your rebuke of me, to flee my fate of suffering, tempted me, my friend. Just like Satan tempted me in the wilderness as I began my ministry.  I was in danger from your words.

It would be a wonderful thing, would it not, to continue to travel through Galilee together healing the sick and casting out demons. This is a good work we are doing.

But the Son of Man is not called only to this work. A greater work lies ahead. And Peter, I write you honestly, I am able to do this only by the Spirit's strength. Your enticing words make it ever so much more painful.

You write that you want me to give you some assurance that you were correct - that I am the Messiah, the Christ of God. But at the same time, you say you feel it in your bones.  What word of mine could add or take away from this sense within you? You have been with me all this time. What would a mere word from my lips change? You have already received a message from my life and the Spirit has confirmed it.

Your problem is not with what I say or do not say about the Messah, the Christ. This would not put you at ease. Instead your problem lies in what you take the Christ to be. You look for the Messiah, the Christ to be a successful ruler of our nation who will save Israel like King David did.

But the Lord is doing a new thing. In weakness, God will show strength; in suffering, God will prepare love; in shame, God will shine forth in glory. The Son of Man will be crucified, yes. He will not be the first.  He will not be the last. But in that suffering death, God will reach out to suffering humanity, in oneness with them. In the mystery of the cross, God's very self will share the suffering of all victims of crucifixions, of every cruelty and every act of abuse.

I do not think you heard me yesterday when I said, "And after 3 days, the Son of Man will rise again." The crucifixion will not be the end of our story, dear Peter. It will only be the beginning. God cannot be defeated by the evil of the cross. God's victory will be real. The powers of this world will try to convince you that the cross is the power of death, but I tell you , my friend, you will come to see in it,  the power of a love that conquers death. 

The powers of this world try to keep us worrying - fretting about this and that: the strength of our movement, the plans of the religious rulers, whether we have enough bread for supper. The powers of this world try to frighten us with crucifixion and death, thinking they will turn us away from the calling God has for us. And I'll tell you a secret, my friend.  I am frightened. I pray that somehow we will not have to carry this through. It is a frightening thing to face the cross.  But many things in this life are frightening. It is a frightening thing to ask for forgiveness.  It is a frightening thing to come back when you've gone away. Sometimes it is frightening to reach out to help another. It's even frightening to receive help sometimes.

But just as you, Peter, have this sense about who I am, I have this assurance that God will not fail us, now or in Jerusalem. You and I live in a world of fear.  And with good reason. We get hurt.  We have needs that go unmet. You and I have seen the crowds that come to us carrying such a heavy burden of suffering. We know we could so easily be in their place. We know that life is fragile. Living in the midst of such uncertainty, feeling so vulnerable... it can breed in one selfishness, a meanness does it not? Such insecurity keeps us from finding our true selves because we are so busy searching for security. 

Instead, Peter, let us learn to speak of living in the presence of God, rather than in the presence of the world. For when we begin to live in God's presence, we begin to know God's love that transforms the heart, by the Spirit. 

Peter, I trust God because I live in God's presence each moment. I know God's care.  I know God's forgiving love. Only in this way, can I begin to take up my cross. I can give myself for others, because I know that I am God's. I know the Lord will never abandon me.  I know that God will be with me.

I would also like you to be with me, Peter.  But perhaps you cannot come just now. You will have to judge that for yourself. Whether you stay away or return, remember you have a place in my heart. May the peace of God be with you, my friend, however the Spirit leads.

Perhaps you find such a letter from Jesus in your own heart. Maybe some part of you has fled from Jesus in anger, or in fear or frustration. Jesus would like you to be with him. Perhaps you feel you cannot be just now. But I tell you today, in Jesus' name, you have a place in Christ’s heart.

May the peace of God be with you, however the Spirit leads.  Amen.